Is Australia finally waking up?
As Vice President Joe Biden looked down on Seaside Park from a Black Hawk helicopter in the days following Hurricane Sandy last October, the New Jersey coast resembled a war zone. Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and impacted on 24 states and the whole of the eastern seaboard. Estimates of losses (damage and the disruption to business) has been put at more than US$60 billion. This latter fact, if nothing else, may have prodded many complacent Americans into thinking about the subject that was barely mentioned during last year's Presidential campaign – namely, the effects of climate change on the United States... and the rest of the world.
Insurance companies have been jittery about climate change for quite a while. The World Bank and the City of London have warned governments about increased risk and spiralling costs. And plunging profits, of course. But I don't care if it's self-interested money men who finally succeed in kicking spineless pollies into action; just as long as somebody does.
Since the beginning of the year, Australia has suffered an extraordinary heatwave. Temperature records have fallen like ninepins all over the place and the Bureau of Meteorology has had to add a new colour to its temperature charts. The maximum temperature was 49.6C at Moomba in South Australia. Sydney had its hottest day on record on Friday, at 45.8C. Last Monday, the average daily maximum temperature reached 40.3C, breaking the previous record set in 1972 (40.1). What this figure reveals is just how much of the continent was very hot: more than 70 per cent of its area experienced temperatures in excess of 42C. It is this extent, as well as the duration and severity of the heatwave, that makes it remarkable and unprecedented in meteorological record-keeping.
The duration figures are also noteworthy. Usually, average daily maximum temperatures are rarely high for long because, geographically, high temperatures are limited in their extent. A run of four days above 39C has happened only once, in December 1972. Since the start of 2013, however, there has been a run of seven days during which the average temperature was more than 39 degrees, and 11 days when it was above 38 degrees. You can study more record-breaking weather data here. The Federal Government's Climate Commission has also produced a report, Off the charts: extreme Australian summer heat.
Despite numerous learned bodies such as the Climate Commission and well-respected 'popular' scientists like Tim Flannery repeatedly making the case for climate change in measured tones, the indisputable facts go way over the heads of those with axes to grind or vested interests to protect or who simply can't face an issue that's too difficult. Flannery suggests that, even if the Australians are finally waking up to reality in the form of bush fires raging across all states of the Commonwealth, it may be too late to curb their profligate carbon emissions in time to avert large-scale catastrophe.
You certainly hear the words 'climate change' on the lips of more Australians in the street – and on talkback radio – these days. But there's still a lot of scepticism around. Just the other day, Senator Ron Boswell, in bemoaning the fact that 300 Australian farmers a month are giving up on the land, blamed on-costs including the price of electricity. What the farmers need, argued the soon-to-be-retiring Senator, is cheap power generated from fossil fuels rather than higher-cost renewables. As soon as a government grasps the nettle and moves on from coal, the cost of electricity generation from renewable sources will tumble. Boswell added that Australia shouldn't be 'going it alone' with renewables while the rest of the world sits back. How heartily sick I am of hearing this lame excuse from conservative politicians here. Many countries have significant renewable energy programmes in place and have had for years. More than a quarter of Denmark's energy is generated from wind (26% in 2011): Portugal (17%) and Spain (15%) are also up there. In 2010, just 2 per cent of Australia's energy was generated by wind: South Australia is far and away the best achiever, while Queensland has no large operational wind farms at all.
This week a collection of scientists, academics and community groups have called on the Australian government to talk about the elephant in the room – coal. It is unlikely to happen this side of the 2013 Federal election, however, even though it is a topic that is well overdue. In the meantime, bush fires continue to burn out of control in New South Wales (top, a scrub fire crosses the Princes Highway near Deans Gap, Nowra, New South Wales, last Tuesday; image courtesy of NSW Rural Fire Service) and Victoria. Temperatures have dropped and the delayed northern monsoon is expected to do away with the extremely hot air mass sitting over the continental interior. But the fire threat is by no means over, and the elephant certainly won't budge.